He means well, it seems, but how is he going to deliver on the deluge of changes he says are imminent for his kingdom to usher into the 21st century?
By Anchal Vohra
On a whirlwind tour in the United States, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohamad bin Salman or MbS as he is nicknamed, is spouting headline worthy comments at a pace much faster than the time needed to make sense of them. He means well, it seems, but how is he going to deliver on the deluge of changes he says are imminent for his kingdom to usher into 21stcentury?
The 32-year-old king-to-be is setting the news agenda by sharing one detail an interview of a social and economic revolution in Saudi Arabia. You can’t but welcome his views as a promising development, especially since the Kingdom, thus far, has been tolerated by a large part of the world for its oil and criticised widely for exporting a stringent form of Islam emerging out of the teachings of Ibn abd al-Wahhab, the religious ally of the founder of the monarchy.
His statement which effectively eases the norm to wear a black loosely fitted garment covering the women from head to toe called abaya or even a black head cover, quickly made an impression on the Americans. Even those who are skeptical of his intentions across the world could do more than hope he is sincere.
In an interview to the news show 60 minutes at CBS, he said, “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” and added, “This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”
Although optimistic of a better future for half of Saudi Arabia’s population, this is at best the prince’s interpretation. The real implementers of Sharia law in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the clerics on the ground and they may still choose to implement it in the way they choose. The ideas of Wahhabism are deeply ingrained in Saudi society and will make it very difficult for the women to unveil. MbS was also evasive on the guardianship laws under which several restrictions are imposed on a woman’s independence wherein she is forced to rely on a man’s approval to work, travel and much more.
MbS continues to guard the ideals of Wahhabism, but assures eradication of terrorism. Conveniently though, it is the anti-monarchy Muslim brotherhood group that is his top priority to tackle and not those who emerged out of the Saudi funding and Wahhabi ideology.
His most eye-grabbing headline was, of course, on Israel and Palestine.
In an interview to The Atlantic, MbS said that his kingdom recognises the right of the Israelis to a homeland.
He said, “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” In a way, such a clearly worded backing of an Israeli state by the de facto leader of the Sunni world, is significant, but a closer look suggests that MbS’ comments are non-committal and do not specify what formula is he precisely referring to when he talks about peace. In the interview, he added, “We have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”
In 2002, the Arab League endorsed the Saudi-led Arab peace initiative which called for normalisation of ties between the Arabs and Israel by resolving the Palestinian issue. The initiative, also known as the ‘Saudi Initiative’, suggests the Israelis withdraw from territories occupied by Israel in the six-day war in 1967, including east Jerusalem and give millions of Palestinians rendered homeless since 1948 the right to return home.
But, MbS’ recent statements do not clarify if that is indeed what the monarchy continues to propose. According to The New York Times, PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas met the crown prince two weeks after Jared Kushner’s night-long discussions with the heir late last year. The paper reported that Abbas was offered a massively diluted version of the 2002 offer. On the table was a Palestinian state but without the right to return and noncontiguous parts of the West Bank. The sovereignty of the Palestinians over areas under them would also be limited.
The idea has been received with consternation from the stakeholders in Palestine. If correctly reported, the proposition calls for a status quo for the Palestinians living under Israel’s iron grip in a walled territory but with the tag of a state.
Perhaps the idea is to eventually convince the rivaling Fatah and Hamas to settle for a little more, but not what they finally seek — returning to pre-1967 borders and resettling Palestinian peoples on their homeland.
MbS’ calculations are shrewd and based on what he perceives to be in Saudi interest. Obsessed with the growth of Iran in Syria and its success in forming an arc of influence all the way from Tehran, through Iraq and Syria, to the Mediterranean in Lebanon, MbS is out to undermine Iranian power, so that the Sunni Saudis maintain an upper hand over the Shite Iran in the Islamic world.
Saudi Vision 2030 which aims at broadening from an oil based economy also plays a huge role in the prince opting for an image makeover for his kingdom. To achieve its ambitions, Riyadh would need large investments from America and while the corporates often push the social realities such as the kingdom being a corrupt, ruthless and authoritarian monarchy, the American people are unlikely to give their sanction unless the Saudi society at least appears to care about human rights.
Winning American support to take on Iran means manipulating the deal for Palestinians and MbS seems happy to do it. Even though officially little is forthcoming when confirmations are sought on the specifics of his plan, one indisputable step in the rapprochement with Israel has recently taken flight, curiously on Indian wings.
MbS’ peace plan and India
Air India’s flight AI 139 flew through the Arabian air space to Tel Aviv and charted the course of history. The Indian airline has become the first carrier to navigate the Saudi skies and reach Muslim world’s arch enemy — Israel.
Every year, 60,000 Israelis travel to India, a lucrative destination for businessmen and popular with young soldiers looking for a break from incessant conflict and the constant need to be on guard. The traffic from India grew too as nearly the same number of Indians visited Israel last year. New Delhi and Tel Aviv have had diplomatic ties for a quarter of a century but the visit of Narendra Modi in 2017 became the first ever by an Indian premier, tilting India’s policy in Israel’s favour. AI 139’s journey on 22 March is wrapped in the harmless expansion of bilateral business even though the carrier was lifting the burden of possible peace between the Arabs and the Jews.
It is the first visible and undeniable move confirming Saudi intentions towards Israel and has far reaching regional and global consequences. Reports that the Saudis, along with the UAE, were keen on opening up to Israel in order to take on Iran started appearing mid last year, around the same time as the Indian PM walked barefoot on the shores of the Mediterranean, emphatically gesticulating supposedly significant matters to his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. During the visit, Modi and Netanyahu announced a direct flight between the two countries but at that stage, it wasn’t revealed it would fly through Saudi Arabia.
The quiet diplomacy between India, Israel and Saudi Arabia has done what was once unthinkable between the strongest Sunni monarchy and the Jewish state.
India is a clever choice to conduct the affair subtly for several reasons. Right at the top of it is it’s friendliness with all the warring sides. Saudis, Iranians, Israelis, and the Palestinians enjoy a trusting relationship with New Delhi. Second, even though the ruling dispensation in India is displaying cosiness with the US and its allies, it has stuck to its principled stand on Palestine. Seven months after Israel, PM Modi stopped by in Palestine to assuage Palestinian concerns. He reaffirmed India’s support for the two-state solution [though without enumerating if the borders must be pre-1967].
Iran could create trouble for India, but there is no sign of it just yet.
Syed Mohamad Marandi, a professor at the Tehran University and a frequent face on TV channels presenting Iran’s views, says that Iran and India’s ties have solid foundations and an Indian airline using Saudi air space to fly to Tel Aviv won’t make a dent in the understanding between the two countries. Having said so, he emphasised how Iran prefers India to walk the path of Mahatma Gandhi.
“India is still associated with Gandhi and it might lose its soft power if it changes its course,” said Marandi via encrypted communications from Iran. In a 30-minute conversation, he repeated the name of Gandhi 15 times evidently to caution the Indian policy makers from trying too many changes and asserting themselves as policy makers in a troubled West Asia. Strolling away from the set path of non-alignment, according to Marandi, will have a cost in the longer term if not immediately.
Nonetheless, he worded his warning cautiously. Marandi did not seem to think the Indian act of defiance to the resistance to Israel and displaying bonhomie towards the Saudis and the Jewish will invite Iranian anger just yet. India, after all, is one of the biggest buyers of Iranian oil in the world.
For now, it seems Air India can fearlessly spread its wings above a region torn apart by war and riddled with rivalries but as India expresses a desire to play a political role in the region, even if under the cover of trade, it must seek concessions from the Saudis. Apart from minor cooperation on intelligence, Delhi can assert itself and ask the Saudis to clean up the jihadi mess in South Asia by stopping the inflow of extremist literature in the region.
The Prince apparently agrees that the task to spread of the word of god [for him it should mean through a Wahhabi lens] has been accomplished and hence there is no need to carry on the Saudi project of spreading Wahhabism.
India must exhort the prince to end financial support to unsavory organisations and exercise leverage on Pakistan to stop sheltering Jihadis of all hues.
In a welcome move for the Germans, in August 2016, the Saudis shut down a madrassa in Bonn called the King Fahd Academy. It was investigated for links with Al Qaeda and upon German insistence the Saudis cut off the funding to the school.
Will the benevolent prince pay such favours to South Asia? Saudi patrons have rampantly funded terror groups disguising as charity organisations in Pakistan and paid for the extremist madrassas churning out terrorists in the region. MbS calls it the past, when the Americans and the Saudis fought Russia’s communism in Afghanistan by using Pakistan’s territory to manufacture jihadi fighters. The Russians have left long ago, but terrorism has stayed. Should not the prince expand his vision of peace to South Asia?
After the cameras turn away, the prince needs to show the world more than a superficial change at home and prove his mettle in the region. So far, Mohammad bin Salman’s reported peace plan for the Palestinians is far from palatable. The man hasn’t yet uttered a word on what he intends on doing to make up for the chaos unleashed in South Asia.
If Yemen is the test of his abilities, the world must lessen its expectations.